ISTE Standards for Coaches

Practical Communication Skills to Help Your Coaching Get Off The Ground

Communication is at the crux of our society. And while it is such an important part of our daily life we stop explicitly teaching it as our kids get older. Right now I have a baby and toddler at home and we spend a large part of our time teaching appropriate ways to communicate (or more so, what ways are inappropriate… demanding food, glaring at mom, throwing toys in frustration, etc.). I’m sure all of you caregivers and parents out there are nodding your heads in agreement. During those early years, kids are like little sponges, observing and soaking in how to communicate both verbally and nonverbally. Why is it then that we stop teaching communication skills later in life? Business leaders now are asking that schools prepare graduates with the needed communication and collaboration skills in order to join a competitive and fast-paced society. These communication skills must be taught and learned. So take a couple of minutes, grab another cup of coffee, and let’s review some of the basics. Whether you are an instructional coach, digital learning specialist, or teacher leader, the following communication skills will help you get your coaching off the ground and build trust with your colleagues.

Be Friendly

Teachers must feel comfortable in order for the relationship to be productive (Foltos, 2013, p. 8). So before jumping into “business” start by building a relationship. Many coaches shared that they like to start their first meeting with casual conversation for 20-30 minutes and that they typically occur over coffee, treats, or lunch (Foltos, 2013, p. 8). Don’t forget to smile and show interest with body language – leaning in and making eye contact are good ways to establish trust. It is also important for coaches to stress that they are true peers. The teacher should know this is a collaborative relationship and that the coach is looking forward to learning from them as well. Other ways to build personal relationships with staff are eating in the lunchroom and always having a stock of chocolate handy in your classroom or office (McGrath, 2019). Walkowiak (2016) points out that as you build trust with teachers by listening, connecting, and empathizing, they will feel more comfortable with a coach being in their classroom and more open to trying new innovative practices.

Set Norms

In his article, The Secret to Great Coaching, Les Foltos (2014) explains that “collaborative norms shape coaching conversations in ways that build trust and respect” (p. 30). Teachers and coaches can use norms to keep themselves accountable. This self-accountability is more likely to happen if coaching pairs explicitly commit to norms that define their work time and outline individual and collective responsibilities (Foltos, 2013, p. 82). Here are some examples of collaborative norms:

  • Begin and end on time
  • Silence and put away cell phones
  • Stay on agenda
  • Do assignments prior to meetings
  • Observe basic conversational courtesies
  • Monitor your own airtime
  • Assume best intentions
  • Probe ideas, not people

Make sure to revisit these norms at the beginning and end of meetings to discuss if they were followed and how they helped your group reach intended goals. If the group wasn’t successful in following norms, the coach can ask what they can do differently next time or if they would like to choose new norms (Foltos, 2013, p. 81).

Work on Active Listening

Look, lean, and assess what the speaker is saying. Block out competing thoughts and really focus. Taking notes is a great way to not get distracted. Make sure to let the speaker finish then pause to reflect before responding. “If a coaching relationship is going to be personalized, coaches have to understand their learning partner’s needs, interests, experiences, and perceptions” (Foltos, 2013, p. 83). Active listening is an essential skill coaches use to understand their partner and get to know them as an individual.

Practice Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing is the art of repeating back what you heard. This helps the coach make sure they really understood what the teacher was saying because it is not important what is said, but what is heard (Foltos, 2013, p. 84). It is also a great opportunity for the collaborating teacher to clarify information if need be. Here are some sentence starters for paraphrasing:

  • “You are suggesting…”
  • “You’re proposing…”
  • “So what you are thinking is…”

Asking Clarifying Questions and Probing Deeper

Both clarifying and probing questions play a vital role in coaching conversations. Clarifying questions are simple questions that the coach asks to gain more understanding or fill in missing pieces. Typically they are factual (Foltos, 2013, p. 85).  Some examples include: “How did you…?”, “What…?, “How many…?”. Probing questions are tools a coach can use to get the teacher to think more deeply and develop answers (Foltos, 2013, p. 85).  Effective probing questions usually start with a paraphrase and are open-ended (Foltos, 2014, p. 31). Coaches want teachers to feel supported, but they can’t become the expert with all the answers (Foltos, 2013, p. 85). This would create an over-dependency on the coach and would not help the teacher to build the capacity to make their own instructional decisions. So by asking probing questions, coaches can help teachers dig deeper and reflect on their instructional practices and student learning. Some sentence starters include:

  • “You said…, what have you tried?” 
  • “What might the next step be?”
  • “Why…?”
  • “What did you learn from that?” 
  • “So you tried …. With your students. What did they learn from that, and what is your evidence?”

Being Mindful of Body Language

We communicate much more through nonverbal cues than we do with actual words. Elena Aguilar (2018), states “Often, the messages we seek to communicate are delivered in our pitch, tone, volume, pace, and body language.” In order to build healthy relationships with collaborating teachers that are founded on trust, we need to be aware of our body language. Ask yourself, how do you communicate kindness, curiosity, or compassion with your nonverbal cues? (Aguilar, 2018). We can build a safer community of learners by being more aware of our body language and also being thoughtful in how we interpret the body language of others.

Recognizing Growth

Lastly, coaches should be supportive and recognize what is already working. Encourage teachers to share their successes at staff meetings or in-house professional development sessions. It is empowering for teachers to be recognized for their strengths and skills and then fellow teachers are exposed to powerful practices in real-life situations they can relate to. Another way coaches can recognize teachers is to encourage teachers to blog or tweet about their successful learning activities, or the coach can blog or post on the school’s social media accounts about the exciting things happening in classrooms around the school. Teachers should see the coach as their cheerleader and know they have their backs!

As I write about these collaboration and communication skills, it is easy to recognize the areas I need to work on and improve. And I’m guessing your areas of growth are different than mine. So let’s continue to show grace to each other, assume best intentions, and remember that we can learn more together than when working alone. Effective communication skills will just help the process run more smoothly.

Works Cited

Aguilar, E. (2018, October 26). How to Hone Your Interpersonal Skills. Edutopia.

Foltos, L. (2013). Peer Coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Corwin.

Foltos, L. (2014, June). The Secret to Great Coaching: Inquiry Method Helps Teachers Take Ownership. Learning Forward, Vol 35, No. 3, p. 28-31

McGrath, S. (2019, June 5). 5 Relationship-Building Tips for Instructional Coaches. Edutopia.

Walkowiak, T. (2016). Five Essential Practices for Communication: The Work of Instructional Coaches. The Clearing House, Vol. 89, No. 1, p. 14-17


  • Les Foltos

    Great take aways from your reading. There may be much more that we can learn from your facinating observations of early childhood communication skill development and our development of coaching skills. It will be fascinating to see how your use of communication skills shapes your coaching collaboration in the weeks ahead.

  • Megan H

    What a great perspective on the key elements to good communication. So easy to just thinking about on but it is important to remember that they all work together. I also appreciated how you started by focusing on the fact that we start life explicitly teaching these skills and then stop some where along the way. Maybe we should start bring these skills back into the classroom.

  • Doug

    Kaelynn, this is the type of article I was looking for and couldn’t find when I was doing my research! I really appreciate how you divided your writing up by communication skills and then addressed each one in turn. So helpful! I also think your initial point is spot on: why do we spend so much time teaching communication to young children but then let this focus go by the wayside? Effective communication is key to success in adulthood. Well done and well written. Great article!

  • Jessica

    The outline and organization are extremely helpful in breaking down communication skills for peer coaches. I especially appreciate how there is a thread of considering kindness throughout all the individual components along with specific phrases.

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